It sometimes happened that the two children asked too many questions even for old Peter, though he was the kindest old Russian peasant who ever was a grandfather. Sometimes he was busy; sometimes he was tired, and really could not think of the right answer; sometimes he did not know the right answer. And once, when Vanya asked him why the sun was hot, and his sister Maroosia went on and on asking if the sun was a fire, who lit it? and if it was burning, why didn't it burn out? old Peter grumbled that he would not answer any more.
For a moment the two children were quiet, and then Maroosia asked one more question.
Old Peter looked up from the net he was mending. "Maroosia, my dear," he said, "you had better watch the tip of your tongue, or perhaps, when you are grown up and have a husband, the same thing will happen to you that happened to the wife of the huntsman who saw a snake in a burning wood-pile."
"Oh, tell us what happened to her!" said Maroosia.
"That is another question," said old Peter; "but I'll tell you, and then perhaps you won't ask any more, and will give my old head a rest."
And then he told them the story of the hunter and his wife.
Once upon a time there was a hunter who went out into the forest to shoot game. He had a wife and two dogs. His wife was for ever asking questions, so that he was glad to get away from her into the forest. And she did not like dogs, and said they were always bringing dirt into the house with their muddy paws. So that the dogs were glad to get away into the forest with the hunter.
One day the hunter and the two dogs wandered all day through the deep woods, and never got a sight of a bird; no, they never even saw a hare. All day long they wandered on and saw nothing. The hunter had not fired a cartridge. He did not want to go home and have to answer his wife's questions about why he had an empty bag, so he went deeper and deeper into the thick forest. And suddenly, as it grew towards evening, the sharp smell of burning wood floated through the trees, and the hunter, looking about him, saw the flickering of a fire. He made his way towards it, and found a clearing in the forest, and a wood pile in the middle of it, and it was burning so fiercely that he could scarcely come near it.
And this was the marvel, that in the middle of the blazing timbers was sitting a great snake, curled round and round upon itself and waving its head above the flames.
As soon as it saw the hunter it called out, in a loud hissing voice, to come near.
He went as near as he could, shading his face from the heat.
"My good man," says the snake, "pull me out of the fire, and you shall understand the talk of the beasts and the songs of the birds."
"I'll be happy to help you," says the hunter, "but how? for the flames are so hot that I cannot reach you."
"Put the barrel of your gun into the fire, and I'll crawl out along it."
The hunter put the barrel of his long gun into the flames, and instantly the snake wound itself about it, and so escaped out of the fire.
"Thank you, my good man," says the snake; "you shall know henceforward the language of all living things. But one thing you must remember. You must not tell any one of this, for if you tell you will die the death; and man only dies once, and that will be an end of your life and your knowledge."
Then the snake slipped off along the ground, and almost before the hunter knew it was going, it was gone, and he never saw it again.
Well, he went on with the two dogs, looking for something to shoot at; and when the dark night fell he was still far from home, away in the deep forest.
"I am tired," he thought, "and perhaps there will be birds stirring in the early morning. I will sleep the night here, and try my luck at sunrise."
He made a fire of twigs and broken branches, and lay down beside it, together with his dogs. He had scarcely lain down to sleep when he heard the dogs talking together and calling each other "Brother." He understood every word they said.
"Well, brother," says the first, "you sleep here and look after our master, while I run home to look after the house and yard. It will soon be one o'clock, and when the master is away that is the time for thieves."
"Off with you, brother, and God be with you," says the second.
And the hunter heard the first dog go bounding away through the undergrowth, while the second lay still, with its head between its paws, watching its master blinking at the fire.
Early in the morning the hunter was awakened by the noise of the dog pushing through the brushwood on its way back. He heard how the dogs greeted each other.
"Well, and how are you, brother?" says the first.
"Finely," says the second; "and how's yourself?"
"Finely too. Did the night pass well?"
"Well enough, thanks be to God. But with you, brother? How was it at home?"
"Oh, badly. I ran home, and the mistress, when she sees me, sings out, 'What the devil are you doing here without your master? Well, there's your supper;' and she threw me a crust of bread, burnt to a black cinder. I snuffed it and snuffed it, but as for eating it, it was burnt through. No dog alive could have made a meal of it. And with that she ups with a poker and beats me. Brother, she counted all my ribs and nearly broke each one of them. But at night, later on—just as I thought—thieves came into the yard, and were going to clear out the barn and the larder. But I let loose such a howl, and leapt upon them so vicious and angry, that they had little thought to spare for other people's goods, and had all they could do to get away whole themselves. And so I spent the night."
The hunter heard all that the dogs said, and kept it in mind. "Wait a bit, my good woman," says he, "and see what I have to say to you when I get home."
That morning his luck was good, and he came home with a couple of hares and three or four woodcock.
"Good-day, mistress," says he to his wife, who was standing in the doorway.
"Good-day, master," says she.
"Last night one of the dogs came home."
"It did," says she.
"And how did you feed it?"
"Feed it, my love?" says she. "I gave it a whole basin of milk, and crumbled a loaf of bread for it."
"You lie, you old witch," says the hunter; "you gave it nothing but a burnt crust, and you beat it with the poker."
The old woman was so surprised that she let the truth out of her mouth before she knew. She says to her husband, "How on earth did you know all that?"
"I won't tell you," says the hunter.
"Tell me, tell me," begs the old woman, just like Maroosia when she wants to know too much.
"I can't tell you," says the hunter; "it's forbidden me to tell."
"Tell me, dear one," says she.
"Truly, I can't."
"Tell me, my little pigeon."
"If I tell you I shall die the death."
"Rubbish, my dearest; only tell me."
"But I shall die."
"Just tell me that one little thing. You won't die for that."
And so she bothered him and bothered him, until he thought, "There's nothing to be done if a woman sets her mind on a thing. I'd better die and get it over at once."
So he put on a clean white shirt, and lay down on the bench in the corner, under the sacred images, and made all ready for his death; and was just going to tell his wife the whole truth about the snake and the wood-pile, and how he knew the language of all living things. But just then there was a great clucking in the yard, and some of the hens ran into the cottage, and after them came the cock, scolding first one and then another, and boasting,—
"That's the way to deal with you," says the cock; and the hunter, lying there in his white shirt, ready to die, heard and understood every word, "Yes," says the cock, as he drove the hens about the room, "you see I am not such a fool as our master here, who does not know how to keep a single wife in order. Why, I have thirty of you and more, and the whole lot hear from me sharp enough if they do not do as I say."
As soon as the hunter heard this he made up his mind to be a fool no longer. He jumped up from the bench, and took his whip and gave his wife such a beating that she never asked him another question to this day. And she has never yet learnt how it was that he knew what she did in the hut while he was away in the forest.
"Yes," said Maroosia, "but then she was a bad woman; and besides, my husband would never call me an old witch."
"Old witch!" said Vanya, and bolted out of the hut with Maroosia after him; and so old Peter was left in peace.
Notes: Contains 21 Russian folktales.
Author: Arthur Ransome
Publisher: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., London, Edinbourgh, NY, Toronto, Paris